THE POWER OF SPIRIT
by Swami Chetanananda
I am going to tell you an autobiographical story. This would be an unusual thing for an Indian teacher to do because in India, spiritual people say they have no personal history. This is because Being has no past and no future--in the infinite, there is no such thing as progress--only the infiniteness of Being itself. History, then, is irrelevant.
As long as we are entangled in our past, we cannot be free. To be free--which is to contact the power of spirit and live from it--is first and foremost to be free of the past.
But I think it's important for me to tell this particular story, which begins in the past, because you may come to understand, in a way which is more meaningful to you than through abstractions, about contacting that power of spirit which creates the whole universe and which resides within you.
Before I tell the story, though, there is one thing we need to understand together. This is a story of inner transformation. Although it is one person's story, it is not about anything personal. It is about the power of spirit which is within each of us. It is not about self-improvement because self-improvement has nothing to do with the spiritual. In the quest through the practice of yoga for the power of spirit, certain things in your life will definitely be better. But the problem with self-improvement is that it is ultimately a self-critique, which keeps us locked in a mind set that deals with what we have identified and judged to be our faults and limitations, and in fact all of that is irrelevant. What most people imagine to be their problems are often nothing more than a set of circumstances appropriate to the particular field in which they have developed. And so, rather than try to spend effort "improving," what we really need to do is completely transform our field of experience.
In different spiritual traditions, there is often a discussion that we are already perfect, and this is because spiritual growth is not a tool for self-improvement. The ultimate paradox about self-improvement is that we're all going to die, so how improved can we get? Can we improve enough to beat the basic event? And at that point in time, what is the net effect of all the accumulated improvement we have gotten? The same effect as all the money we have saved.
So this is a story of inner transformation, which is beyond self-improvement, beyond the past, present and future. It is a story of the power of spirit.
The story starts in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1966, when I left a town of 10,000 people in rural Indiana and went to college. At first, it was confusing, going from a little town to an academic environment of 30,000 people in the university and another 40,000 in the town. Then, there was also the fact that as an undergraduate, I only got teaching assistants as teachers.
None of this daunted me, however, because I knew that I wanted my life to be about benefiting other people. So I thought politics might be a way in which I could do this. I worked as the editor of a political magazine until I realized that my interest in trying to bring about a better quality of life for human beings had very little to do with what politicians were actually doing. Whether it was campus, state or national politics, too often when politicians talked about quality of life for others, what they meant was quality of life for themselves. I saw through the rhetoric to understand it as a justification for self-interest. It was depressing.
This became clear to me one February in Indiana; it was a very cold and dark February. I was living in a student house, which means too many roommates, so the place was dirty, disorganized. It was at least 20 below out. The windows had a quarter of an inch of ice on them. It was the dead of winter; I was searching for an avenue to help people and wasn't finding it; I was feeling despair. I realized then that most people are born to a track or orbit in life based upon the tensions of economic position and parents and perspective. We have a certain amount of energy allocated to us as we come into this world, and it sets up a track, an orbit--a circular path. This orbit is something which most people never escape, and on that cold night, at that moment in my life, I was aware of the orbit I was in, and I looked down the groove of it and felt deeply that the life that was laid out for me was not at all a life worth living. I simply couldn't accept it.
I turned on the television, and there was the movie of the Charles Dickens novel, David Copperfield, and David was walking along the beach, asking himself, "Will I be the hero of my own life?" And that question gave me goosebumps. I felt within myself that I absolutely had to be the hero of my own life or life was not worth enduring. And that was a very important moment for me.
It wasn't the end of my distress. I picked myself up and threw myself back into school. I thought that I had failed in my responsibilities in the context of my track in life and that I needed to return and do better. So I tried--and it didn't work--because the old way-all of it, no matter how "improved" I tried to make it-was simply that orbit, that track that led nowhere.
In those days, I was driving from Bloomington to Indianapolis a couple of times a week to spend the afternoon at a high school helping kids with their reading. One day while I was doing this, it dawned on me that before I could do anything about the quality of anybody else's life, I had to do something about the quality of my own. I recognized that the orbit into which I'd been born had nothing to do with the quality of my life whatsoever but in fact existed primarily as a natural mechanism for limiting the range of experience that was available to me. In other words, I realized I couldn't transform myself in this orbit and leave this orbit at the same time. If I was interested in the quality in life, I had to transcend my life as it existed at that moment because no matter how "good" I sought to make it, I could only get the level of quality that everybody else got by staying in the orbit. And that quality was limitation.
So rather than continue to be upset with myself and feel badly about myself-rather than walk through life with a heavy heart and accept the meagerness of the qualitative experience available to me within that orbit-I said, "No, I have to be the hero of my own life. I have to change the entire field of my experience." But how?
As grace would have it, I recognized, through a yoga class, that the most important thing was to find a teacher, a mentor, to help me develop the skills necessary to change the field of my experience. In many heroic epics, in India's Mahabarata, for example, Arjuna and his brothers are princes. Hercules, or Heracles in Greek, was the son of the god, Zeus. In other words, these were beings who were trained to meet the challenges in their lives, and I realized the first thing I needed to do was get some training. I knew that becoming the hero of my own life would be a serious endeavor.
I also understood, though, that it is a light endeavor-because in becoming the hero of our own life, we rise above old tensions to a level of lightness within ourselves that is a demonstration of the profound light, the power of spirit, that resides at the center of our soul. But the hero's quest is also the most serious endeavor that a person can undertake, and it is absolutely not risk free. Continuously we deny ourselves the possibility of ever finding any real satisfaction in our lives because we look for the path of least resistance; we look for the most comfortable route to travel. But that's the old orbit--and because of that, we lose our very life because essentially what we're doing is allowing our laziness and fear to dominate our potential. It is in the challenges and adversity in life, and in facing that adversity, that we gain from life the discrimination and strength to maintain from within ourselves an authentic contact with the power of spirit, which is the vital power of Life Itself.
So I was literally praying for a being to guide me when a person who was a friend just happened to meet a person who knew a spiritual teacher, Rudi, and this acquaintance just happened to be passing through Bloomington. It was in this serendipitous way that I was shown a picture of my teacher. I looked at the picture and said "Yes," went to New York and saw Rudi-just laid eyes on him-and understood that this was a person who would help me change my life.
Authentic teachers are people who have burst the orbit, who through their own heroic endeavor have established themselves in the power of spirit, and they share that state with others with no self-interest whatsoever. A teacher is available, but they may not be evident. They usually do not promote themselves very much. They are often doing extraordinary work quietly and somewhat unknown. It is only from the deepest part of you that you find a teacher, only from that place within your soul that calls out for a more authentic quality of contact with the living essence from within you. It is the power of spirit within you that reaches out into the field of experience and evokes from that field a contact with a real hero, a person who has sacrificed themselves infinitely to realize a level of satisfaction, a lightness and a depth of peace within themselves.
As taught by an authentic teacher, the practice of yoga, which brings us to the power of spirit within us, puts us in touch with our own energetic mechanism, the mechanism by which, according to ancient traditions, the power of spirit becomes first our soul and then our heart and then our mind and then our body. In physics, scientists have noted that when a particular atom takes on more energy, the orbit of the electrons moves out, and at a certain point, it takes on enough energy that it starts to shed electrons. A teacher is an energy source that widens our orbit to the point of transcending it. The teacher guides us in finding the place within ourselves where a transformation can take place that has the potential to be truly profound and self-sustaining.
So the interchange between spiritual teacher and student is not about information; we may glean some information, but a spiritual teacher is not there to "teach" us anything. The better word for a spiritual teacher is the Sanskrit word, "guru," which means "dispeller of darkness"-the light then brings itself-and dispelling the darkness means breaking the orbit and being free of all tension, all crystallization, all sense of separateness, to become deeply and completely aware of the power of spirit within ourselves.
I'd like to backtrack a minute to share what I think are some of the important points of this discussion. Number one, I wasn't born to any special circumstances, and number two, I didn't have any special life experience. In other words, anybody can be the hero of their own life. It is a matter of rising up to overcome the inertia and centrifugal force which seeks to hold us in the orbit of life experience into which we were born. In rising out of that orbit, it becomes possible for us to escape the suffocating patterns of tension and interaction that function as a self-limiting force on both our physiology and our psychology.
In order to become the hero of our own lives, we have to have the courage to accept ourselves as we are and begin to find within that place which is calling forth to our heart and our mind, our soul, an acceptance that allows for that deepest creative power to manifest itself irrespective of wherever it might lead us. Being the hero of our own life does not preclude or exclude any activity, any particular style of life, any particular line of work. In fact, what this endeavor should do is totally extend and refine our capacity for self-expression as it completely extends and refines our capacity for self-awareness because we are awakening and calling forth from within ourselves a power of spirit that is the source of strength to enable us to overcome the structural limitations of the orbit into which we were born.
Becoming the hero of our own life is an endeavor that should continuously turn us to the potential that exists within to recreate ourselves, and in turning to that potential and in recreating ourselves, we are rediscovering the vitality of Life Itself that is what makes anything alive-what makes life delicious.
The hero's quest and the hero's journey are not about any external events. They are about the transformation of the hero, the inner transformation-not the material or personal transformation. Of course, in our society, becoming the hero of our own life means getting our own software company. How sad. As if somehow we could purchase life. As if somehow an authentic experience of being alive were something available with money.
When Rudi asked me to return to Bloomington to set up an ashram, I said, "Rudi, I'll need some money to do this." And Rudi looked at me, smiled and said, "Anybody can do it with money." Do you understand what he meant? In one sentence, he cut me in half and freed me from a level of mental constriction. Because if we are true to our heroic endeavor, then we depend upon that creative power, the power of spirit, our own creative resource, not on something outside us, not on anything outside us.
The hero's journey is about inner transformation, and the transformation that takes place in the context of moving here and there in the world and facing different challenges is not about the victories we have or the defeats we experience. It is about the unfoldment of that power of spirit from within us that causes us to understand ourselves in a profoundly different way-to understand ourselves in a way that allows us to be free of doubt and self-loathing-of all the things I was feeling so many years ago on that very cold, winter day in Indiana. It allows us to be free to live in the vitality of the power of spirit, which is at the core of our soul, and to accept its voice, its song, to live its symphony as the form of our life, whatever that symphony might be. The power of spirit has from within itself pulled forth the whole universe, and that power that has created the whole universe is within us. We can do anything we want with that power. So the power of spirit through the practice of yoga-which is the hero's journey-is about experiencing that power and learning to trust it. Spirit is one, it is whole, and it is infinite-transcending then and now, before and after, coming and going, higher and lower, less and more-transcending every such idea. Spirit manifests itself when we are in contact with it as the quality of completeness, of joy and satisfaction and clarity, which is its own quality. Spirit manifests that completeness in each and every moment that we are in contact.
Contacting the power of spirit within us, which is inner transformation, is not about winning or losing. It is not about self-improvement or anything personal. It is about Being--the absolutely finest being--not because we've "improved" anything, not because we've "improved" the orbit into which we were born, but because we live within the power of spirit. We find a teacher, we develop a spiritual practice, in order to know that power of spirit within us. In becoming the hero of our own lives, we burst the bounds of any orbit, we journey beyond the limitations of orbit into the power of spirit, which creates the whole universe and which resides within each of us. We see its beauty and wonder, and we choose to live, always and only, from and within that.